Yesterday was United Methodist Women’s Sunday at St. Anonymous. Usually UMW Sunday is in January, but this year it wasn’t possible to work out a mutually agreeable Sunday with the pastor until March 9, which was the day after International Women’s Day, so it seemed appropriate. UMW Sunday requires a lot of volunteers to take over as greeters, ushers, readers, and a speaker. We started out having members give the sermon, but few people liked doing that, so we moved onto having women guest speakers, often pastors from surrounding churches, but lay speakers as well. This year, we weren’t able to get our choice for speaker, so Dr. J spoke as she does every Sunday.
I had volunteered to be an usher for the new and sparsely attended 9:45 service, and figured I had better get there early. I got there so early that the sermon from 8:30 church was still going on. I was able to hear it, too, because we have a flat screen monitor and sound in the narthex.
And I got there just as Dr. J was illustrating her point with a story told to her by a friend. The friend has been dating a man who has been divorced for many years. I’m not sure what constitutes “many” in this situation: five, ten, twenty? At any rate, it sounds as though Dr. J’s friend, let’s call her Sue, came along after the divorce and wasn’t a factor. Sue’s boyfriend’s first grandchild was born, and of course, he and Sue went to visit the child.
While they were there, the story continues, the ex-wife (let’s call her Barb, and the ex-husband Mack, just to simplify my typing) also came to visit the child. At this point, as Sue told Dr. J, she was prepared for some discomfort, but what she wasn’t prepared for was the “wall of hate” she felt coming from Barb’s direction.
What a familiar sounding story, I think, and knowing I’m going to have to hear it all over again at the next service, I head outside where the coffee is, while scratching “talk to the pastor about it” off my list of potential solutions to my ex-husband problem. Because I know what I am going to hear next. After all, the sermon is one of a series built around the Lenten Study book, Final Words by Adam Hamilton, and deals with the words, “Father forgive them”.
When I do hear the sermon, an hour or so later, the Sue and Barb story is as bad as I think. Sue, in later talking to Dr. J, says something to the effect of not knowing the whole history of the divorce, only having heard one side of the story, but then asks something like “Can you imagine what an effect it must have on a person to hold that much hatred in their heart for so long?”
I am happy to report that I did not stand up at that moment (or any other) and scream what I was thinking, namely, “WTF makes you think that just because Barb seemed hateful that one time, that she has been feeling hatred in her heart 24/7 since the divorce?”
And I will get back to that thought, but first, the rest of the sermon. In a nutshell, hatred, bitterness and judgement fill your heart and don’t leave room for God’s love and grace, and one way to get rid of hatred and bitterness is to pray for the people that have wronged you. Dr. J herself has a few people she is still working at forgiving, through prayer, and it is helping.
Back to Barb. Having been in her shoes (hi, Barb, my sister), I can easily think of several things that could have been going on with her, other than “bitter woman eating herself up with hatred 24/7”. There is a bias in human thought called the Fundamental Attribution Error, the attribution of our own behavior to external, situational forces and other people’s behavior to their intrinsic character. I think it’s more likely that Barb has made her peace with the divorce, and has been living her life since then, sometimes happily and sometimes not, like all the rest of us, but something about that visit sparked an anger that may have surprised her as much as it did anyone else. She was visiting her first grandchild. At some point, she and Mack had been the new parents, bringing their firstborn home, in all likelihood thinking the love that created that baby would last forever. Why wouldn’t seeing the new baby bring up powerful feelings about how all that had gone wrong?
Maybe it was something even more mundane than that. Maybe Barb had told Mack when she would be visiting so he could plan his visit at another time, and he forgot or didn’t care. Maybe she had simply asked that at the first visit to the grandbaby, Mack not bring Sue. Maybe it was some thoughtlessness of Mack’s in the present that got to her, not the past at all.
Maybe she really is a hateful, bitter woman who can’t let go of the past. I’m not ruling that out, I’m just saying that in the absence of other evidence, the charitable thing to do would be to assume that she isn’t like this all the time, and that at that moment she was hurting badly.
My first reaction was to want to tell Dr. J that I thought it was her friend who was being judgemental, but a few moments reflection led me to realize I don’t know that, either. Maybe the next words out of Sue’s mouth were, “Well, I don’t know that she feels that way all the time”, and Dr. J didn’t include them because they didn’t fit the theme of the sermon. Even if she didn’t come to that realization, I can empathize with Sue as well as Barb. It must have been scary feeling what seems to you like a “wall of hate”. Most of us don’t do our best thinking under those circumstances. Sue was doing her best to show what empathy she could in recounting the story to Dr. J. I wasn’t there, I can’t judge her, either.
What I can do is reflect that there is an obvious, Christian solution to the problem of forgiveness, and that is, to extend love and support to the person who is struggling to forgive, or doesn’t even want to forgive. Why is it that our first impulse in these situations is to preach forgiveness instead of to extend love? I didn’t stand up and yell that, either. Can I have a cookie?
What I did is reflect on the many times Juliet has told us that when she preaches a sermon, she is preaching to herself as much as to the congregation. She holds herself up to these high standards of love and forgiveness when she has been wronged, unlike me, who figures that if the people who wronged me are still walking around free with their pieces and parts intact, that’s forgiveness enough.
So I decided to take my own advice for once. When the service was over, I found her and give her a big hug, and told her, “I don’t know what those people did who wronged you, but I know you have my love and support.”
It may not have been what she needed, but it’s what I’ve got.